Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tim Park's “Reverend” was originally published in the December 8, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“Reverend,” by Tim Parks, is a chilly, chilly story. A man recalls his emotional, confrontational, immediate, ambitious, ebullient father and at the same time reflects upon his own need to withdraw from the heat of all that chaos. Thomas is someone who has made a habit of withdrawal, and he enjoys his life as it now is, with its “quiet cold evenings.”
Thomas, a 58-year-old man who is separated from his wife, has recently buried his 90-year-old mother. His mother’s death has provoked in him a surprising desire to recall his father, but his impending divorce may be the true impetus to his father-seeking. He sits at his computer, methodically calling up different stages of life with his father. His purpose appears to be to discover whether he ever had any connection with the man he so studiously tried to avoid.
Thomas had been the good child, the solid student, the one who followed the rules. Around him, the family was in conflict with the father. The brother was rebellious; the older sister got terrible grades. The interchanges were heated. The other two engaged the father; Thomas avoided engagement. Thomas himself, surrounded by all this heat, sees himself as having been “lukewarm.”
Now Thomas is “bivouacked on a metaphorical mountainside, with no one beside him [. . .].” It would be sad, except that he “rather liked his apartment, didn’t he, and his quiet cold evenings.” He has still not signed his divorce papers, but he is not yearning to preserve the marriage either.
Thomas gives us very little of himself. We don’t know, for instance, what it is he likes to do in his quiet evenings, except that we do know he feels unfinished, and we do know that he likes to think. Normally, I am drawn to stories about people thinking. Thomas, however, has a chill about him that puts me off. But perhaps that’s just me. I am wondering if Thomas is somehow a fictional equivalent of Philip Larkin — except that Thomas lacks the piercing economy of mind.
Thomas wonders about the father, whose very big presence belied “an enigma.” The father, an English preacher, was an inspiring leader and confidante, and he could bring souls to the altar. People respected him. There was a passion about him. He had even written a book. At one point he became involved in a charismatic movement that swept the church, and he spoke in tongues.
But Thomas thought of his powerful father as a disappointed man.
Thomas once found his father in the kitchen and heard him mutter, “I suppose it has been all right, in the end, this monogamous life.” Late in his life, sick with brain cancer, the father called the mother a whore, the woman who had joined him willingly in his clerical life and had participated joyfully in his charismatic experiments. There is something very disjointed here.
I felt quite impatient to love this man whom Thomas himself had never been able to love, but somehow, I found the family man unlovable, the man of the cloth a little slippery, and the man as a whole incompletely represented. That, of course, would be the enigma. But I experienced it as disjointed rather than enigmatic.
And I didn’t quite get how a sophisticated London congregation would receive a pastor who was speaking in tongues, even if it was in vogue.
As for Thomas, I found it hard to be interested in a man who as a child wanted to withdraw from his family, and then as an adult, wanted to do the same thing, especially because I had no idea what his family was like. Perhaps it was a repeat of his family of origin. Perhaps it was the opposite.
The story resolves itself around a memory. Thomas recalls going on vacation with his parents after the brother and sister had left home. Father and son go swimming, and the father wants to share the physical experience of the encounter with the water. The son merely wants to get as far away as possible.
Thomas, the 58-year-old adult at the computer, has this realization: “He’s worried that I’ve gone too far and may never make it back.”
This is also what the reader thinks, and what Thomas has realized: that he may be about to withdraw too far. Something about this story is so foreign to my interests and concerns I feel at a loss to appreciate what may be its hallmark — its delicacy. Failure is what I feel, more than anything else, in both men, but Parks has not made me care very much about either man.
But I will say that I found the author’s interview with Deborah Treisman riveting. To me, the story is fascinating when read in combination with the interview.
Let’s say that the distance fiction allows — talking in the third person, declaring from the start, “This is not me, these are not people I know” — enables me to meditate on experiences close to home, on characters like myself, like my father, without being swept away by them.
I felt this very same thing with Brad Watson and “Eykelboom”: that the story might be in some way autobiographical and that the act of fiction allowed the author the distance required to handle the hot coals.
To close, I would remark that my lack of interest in withdrawn men who prize their solitariness probably disqualifies me from writing a fair review of this story. This is idiosyncratic to me; there are probably other readers who will find this story revealing, touching, psychologically apt, or beautifully told, and I hope to hear from them and welcome all their arguments in favor. As for me, however, perhaps it is that very distance that Parks sought to achieve that leaves me cold.